One Baby Boomer in three now officially counts as obese - and another is overweight. That two-thirds of this aging generation (born 1946 to 1964) struggles with significant excess weight – multiple experts said - is a crisis. David Nico, author of Diet Diagnosis, went further: “This is not a health crisis. It’s a tragedy.”
That’s because obesity is not an isolated issue. It is correlated with a range of health issues such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems, kidney problems, and more. “Obesity impacts every organ in the body, ” said Dr. Adrienne Youdim, an obesity expert and head of the Center for Weight Loss and Nutrition at the Lasky Clinic in Beverly Hills.
“Obesity is right after smoking related lung cancer as a leading cause of preventable deaths,” added Youdim.
That’s key: for the most part obesity is a preventable disease.
And yet the aging Boomer cohort finds itself aswim in an epidemic of obesity.
Know that there are possible cures. Optimism is plentiful. Also plentiful are insights into exactly how we got into this mess.
First definitions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control define obesity in terms of body mass index (BMI, which is weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared). A BMI of 25 to 30 is overweight. Over 30 is obese. Morbid obesity is 40+.
The CDC puts heights and weights around this. A 5’9″ person is considered normal if the weight is 125 to 168 pounds. Overweight if 169 to 202. Obese if 203 to 270 pounds. Morbidly obese if upwards of 270 pounds.
What’s remarkable in the historic weight data crunched by the Endocrine Society is that the overweight percentage of adults has been steady for 50 years. In 1960 to 1962, 31.5% of us were overweight. In 2011-12, the number had drifted up to 33.3%.
Obesity numbers are starkly different. In 1960-62, 13.4% of adults were obese. By 2011-12, that number had risen to 35.3%, almost three times more.
Percentages for Boomers in particular are very comparable, but with Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) complexities arise precisely because of their age, which is often associated with medical issues, and that ups the ante for Boomers. Just why are so many now obese – and what can be done about it? Experts are quick to offer cures and finger causes.
As regards the latter, Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate professor of community health at Ball State, identified what he sees as the causes of Boomer obesity: ”The dramatic rise in fast food culture in the Baby Boomer generation, fast life, increased consumption of processed food, more focus on medical care, and dwindling investments on education and preventive health.”
Essentially Khubchandani is saying Boomers are obese because they eat the wrong foods, they have lived fast [high stress] lives and they have not benefited from targeted preventative health care.
That last bit is important. According to Youdim, medical general practitioners usually are reluctant to confront overweight patients about their weight. Nobody knows why. But an upshot is that Boomer weight steadily increases, often unchallenged.
Youdim added: “One could argue that Boomers came along at a time of great change in diet – more fast food. Activities have been engineered out of our lives – climbing stairs, doing household chores, TV remote controls. Boomers may be the age group that is most impacted.”
As for cures, the good news is that experts say identifying them is easy. Basically two steps are needed: eat better (and less) and exercise more.
Dr. Judi Goldstone of the Southern California Center for Anti-Aging elaborated that a big step towards healthier weight is just to eat better. That may mean no more fast food, it also probably means smaller portions and, said Goldstone, “If people had readily available inexpensive produce, fresh food and increased fiber in their diet,” that would be a step towards really fighting obesity.
As far as exercise goes, rehab clinician Suzanne Andrews, herself a Boomer, said she often works with obese Boomers and here’s the problem: “One of my daily challenges is educating patients that exercise is essential for good health and weight loss. Many still believe that rest is best. Not so – even with health conditions. Also people still think that to lose weight they just have to diet – that is also not the case, especially as the metabolism slows down in middle age and beyond.”
Andrews, by the way, said that small but regular doses of exercise go far in kickstarting metabolic rates and also in combating obesity: “30 minutes of cardio integrated with strength training every other day is good,” said Andrews.
Youdim optimistically said, “Just because the [Boomer] population is aging doesn’t mean they are immune to the benefits of lifestyle change.”
Is it easy to eat better and work out more? No expert promises that. But until changing these habits is centerstage, very probably Boomer obesity will continue to grow in numbers. And that at the very least counts as a national crisis.